I haven’t regretted my decision not to review series 12 at length, but not because I didn’t like it. It’s nice to relax and enjoy the show as a fan and not as a critic, ignoring the stuff I didn’t like and focusing on the stuff I did. I will, however, keep with tradition enough to rank the episodes of series 12 excluding the 2-part finale that starts this Sunday. I’ll start from the bottom.
7. Orphan 55
Poor “Orphan 55.” It starts out looking as loony and charming as, say, “Delta and the Bannermen,” and it all goes so wrong so quickly. I mean, the message is nice: don’t warm the globe, or else humanity will become monsters. I actually believe that is true — it’s just that the type of monsters we’ll become are still going to look at least as human as the ones in “Utopia,” savage in behavior more than appearance. And the idea of a holiday camp concealing a scorched Earth full of desperate and murderous survivors is as perfect a metaphor as you can get. My theory is that this was a two-parter in concept and we lost all the important stuff, like character development and plausible links between actions, motivations, and events. But that wouldn’t account for the awful choices in casting, acting, directing, dialogue, and costuming. Still, this is the kind of problem you want Doctor Who to have: too much ambition and imagination rather than too little. And this is the worst the season got!
In the end I’m not sure “Praxeus,” the other Big Message episode this series, is all that much better than “Orphan 55.” It starts reasonably well, but somewhere around 2/3 of the way in, it starts to nosedive into frantic handwavy explanations and extremely unlikely resolutions. Some of it might actually have made sense, but it was so rapid-fire and unconvincing that it sped by too fast to be sure either way. When one character died and no one but me appeared to notice or care, I started to tune out. In its favor, the slightly Lifeforce-esque plastic transformations are a lot creepier than the bathetic future humans from “Orphan 55,” and although I didn’t find his marriage the slightest bit convincing, DS Ripley as a man who loves men is a dream come true.
5. Nikola Tesla’s Night of Terror
For an episode this good to rank this low means this was a very good year indeed for Doctor Who. Almost everything here is right, and almost nothing is wrong. I’ll bet there were kids watching who didn’t know much about the Tesla/Edison situation and learned a lot from this story. Edison himself acts like a real person as opposed to the cartoon villain we might have expected given “Arachnids in the UK.” The aliens are cartoons, caricatures of the role Edison plays for Tesla, but they’re suitably creepy. Apart from the fact that, as many have observed, Tesla never really seems especially terrified (the worst thing about this series is its episode titles), it all works — it’s worthy, and it’s pleasant, just slightly blander than the stories I’ve ranked higher.
This is a very silly story. Yes, it’s full of wonderful guest stars like Stephen Fry and Lenny Henry, and wonderful historical figures like Ada Lovelace, and horrible historical figures like Nazis, and a lot of things happen in it like motorcycle chases and car crashes and plane almost-crashes. But about the time Stephen Fry blithely hands over deadly spy gadgets to the Fam it becomes clear we’re not to take any of this too seriously. The aliens themselves are a little trying; even by the end of this two-parter their nature and motivations still seem extremely vague. The expansiveness of this story really is exhilarating, though. And what really makes it sing is one extraordinary virtuoso performance, which is obviously Sacha Dhawan’s magnificent and extremely sexy Master.
3. Can You Hear Me?
I can’t decide if the flying ear-fingers are just ghastly or super clever: I wouldn’t have thought there were many ways left for Doctor Who to be disturbing in such a simple, non-gory way. I think I’d almost rather become plastic and explode. And how about those monster designs? Did the same team work on “Orphan 55,” and if so, why are these so much better? If this episode has a weak link, it’s the performances of the two eternal beings; they look pretty great, but the more they talk, the goofier they seem. What really elevates this story is that — brace yourself — the companions get something to do. Yaz in particular is very well served by her “how I became a cop” revelation — it’s the most human she’s seemed since we’ve known her — but Ryan also gets some very sweet, almost bromantic scenes with his lonely friend. Unpopular opinion: if “Vincent and the Doctor” is trying to depict depression, it fails to do so. This story succeeds.
2. Fugitive of the Judoon
This probably should not be up this high. The story itself is very slight: space cops come to Earth to capture a criminal, and the criminal turns out to be DUN DUN DUNNNN the Doctor! But one we don’t know about! Who thinks our Doctor is a dummy! Given that we only have two episodes left, presumably we’ll find out that the so-called “Ruth Doctor” is from some Terminator-esque possible future where the Cybermen have been unusually successful in conquering the universe. For now, she is a delicious mystery, with a great-looking TARDIS. Meanwhile, everything that leads up to this revelation is entirely fun and charming. It’s kind of the anti-“Utopia,” in that instead of being a dark story leading up to an unexpected Master, this is a bright story leading up to an unexpected Doctor. The way our Doctor just kind of blithely ignores this new version of herself in order to have more one-off adventures is a little loopy, but I also kind of love it. Oh, and random Captain Jack cameo! I mean, why not?
1. The Haunting of Villa Diodati
I’m realizing that lots of my favorite Doctor Who stories have a kind of haunted house vibe to them: “Image of the Fendahl,” (not “Ghost Light” for some reason), “Human Nature/Family of Blood,” “Hide,” and now this, which crosses it with a “Castrovalva[n]” impossible-building sequence as if it were made for me. Although I have never been super into Frankenstein or any of its reiterations (except, oddly, Rocky Horror) or implications, I’ve often found the Percy/Mary/Byron drama tragically compelling, and this story does not disappoint on that front. The spooky bits and the historical-figure bits are so entertaining, so well written and directed and cast and acted and performed, that it’s a slight letdown when it turns out a boring old Cyberman (excuse me, “modern Prometheus” — yeah, that was a little on the nose) is responsible and he would have gotten away with it too if it weren’t for you meddling kids.